Policymakers must be humble in their assumptions about what parents want in their children’s schools, and about their ability to drive quality through regulations.
A growing body of evidence suggests regulations, including standardized testing mandates, can depress school participation in private school choice programs. At the same time, while such regulations can discourage school participation (limiting the options available to families), they do not rise anywhere near the top of the factors parents value when choosing a school.
Parents are much more interested in those intangibles that are standardized tests cannot capture, but that are more important to the long-term flourishing of their children, such as religious and values-based instruction. And for good reason: As Dr. Jay Greene has identified, we do not regularly see a relationship between changing test scores and later life outcomes.
Indeed, what parents are looking for is something apart from what their child’s traditional district school offered. To condition private school participation in a school choice program on adherence to the public school formula—as the Louisiana Scholarship Program does—renders school choice less meaningful by reducing the number of substantially different options available to families.
Policymakers should avoid being like the proverbial drunk looking for his lost keys under the lamppost because “that’s where the light is.” Standardized tests shine a light on an important aspect of school performance, but sometimes the keys are not under the light.
Families prioritize aspects of schooling that are less measurable, but equally or more important. Families want schools that will form children of good moral character. They want schools that will prepare their children to pursue their life and career goals. They want meaningful instruction in a safe school setting.
Choice is providing them access to just that.